‘They hate me.’ Political clashes are stifling NJ city redevelopment, mayor says.
The current Trenton City Council and Mayor Reed Gusciora have been at loggerheads over several issues during their three-and-a-half-year tenure, from rows over police radios to million-dollar deals.
And along the way, they argued over many other issues, and several council members had to apologize for derogatory name-calling at council meetings, to each other and to the mayor.
Last week, their differences erupted again over an issue central to the city’s years-long effort to rebuild itself: redevelopment.
The council wants to take over the role of redevelopment in the capital and has passed a two-paragraph ordinance to accomplish this. It eliminates the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development and places all authority over housing and development with the council.
Gusciora vetoed and fired him with a scathing six-page response that said it was an illegal and unconstitutional power grab, and the council’s previous attempt to redevelop was shot down by a judge in county in 2020 and she will fail again if she goes to court, which the mayor believes is a possibility.
Additionally, the part-time council simply does not have the time – especially with nine months until all of its members are re-elected – to begin or come close to creating a redevelopment council or designees. .
South Ward Councilor George Muschal and East Ward Councilor Joe Harrison voted against the council’s redevelopment ordinance.
Additionally, the mayor claimed, the council obstructed earlier projects encouraged by his administration, and when he attempted to redevelop on his own, “the results were disastrous”.
The mayor cited, in his veto and to NJ Advance Media, as he has done before, the supreme example of council failure is the deal in 2019 that would have brought a fiber optic company to the city, Princetel, which was to purchase and renovate an old Roebling building and lease on site. The board effectively killed the project after one day.
The mayor has tried to push for redevelopment of the building, known as Roebling Block II, since his first day in office, he said, and last fall the council tabled further proposals for Roebling Block II, he said. (On Thursday, Gusciora’s administration issued another public call for proposals for Roebling Block II.)
He also said the council has an existing role in redevelopment, reviewing and authorizing agreements that the Department of Housing and Economic Development is working on. “They have no interest in it,” he said.
The latest redevelopment scrap also highlighted ongoing friction between the administration and the council.
The mayor said several members had their own political ambitions, they did not understand the fundamentals of governments’ role in redevelopment, “And they are doing everything to move the city forward.”
NJ Advance Media reached out to all seven council members through their city’s emails and only West Ward councilor Robin Vaughn responded.
She thinks Gusciora is the problem because he may have over 20 years of experience in government as a state legislator, but he’s not a good executive and instead of using his experience to gain the support of council members, he prefers to “file frivolous lawsuits” when they disagree with him.
“The root cause of the friction, as you describe it, between [the council and the mayor] is that he never submitted his plan or his vision to the city council and the residents and ratepayers of the city, for Trenton,” she said.
As for the redevelopment order, Vaughn said council redevelopment lawyer John Hoffman sanctioned it and was long overdue.
“Everyone should agree with this change. It’s the right thing to do. And it’s the most effective and efficient way to attract and compete with other municipalities that have created the same in the market for top investment partners,” Vaughn said.
“Furthermore, it will ensure that projects are vetted and have the proper controls in place for successful implementation and results that will benefit all stakeholders and the city, in the long run.”
Michael Ranallo, a townsman running for a general council seat, said he was more critical of Gusciora early in his term.
But the mayor put forward some good initiatives, and as the two sides bickered, the council became an obstructionist body, Ranallo said. (He also had to apologize for his own insult.)
He said the mayor was ‘100% right’ to veto the redevelopment ordinance as he too believes they don’t have enough time for such an undertaking. After how the board behaved, he said it boiled down to the question, “If you’re a developer, would you want to deal with this board?”
“I don’t know anyone who would answer yes to that question,” said Ranallo, who is also a co-admin of the Facebook group Trenton Orbit, along with Bill Kearney.
Gusciora disagreed with Vaughn on the order and said his vision and plans for the city were laid out in all four State of the City addresses he gave.
The mayor acknowledges that the traffic jam is not good for the city, but he thinks the council is a mix of mediocre leaders and personalities. A Democrat, Gusciora said he remembers having easier relations with minority Republicans during his time at the Statehouse, and even with former Gov. Chris Christie – who called him “numb”.
“I’ve never seen such a poor caliber of legislators, especially leaders,” Gusciora said of the Trenton council.
“I’ve always said they hate me more than they love the city,” the mayor said.
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Kevin Shea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.